The following question was left on the MIA Facts Site Guestbook on July 22. My
Dr. C.F. MacDonald
Colonel Schlatter, as you certainly know, several (in excess of a
half dozen) South Korean POWs have escaped from POW camps in North Korea over the past few
It shows us that prisoners are still being held, that they survive
under less than wonderful conditions, and that they still look to come home. It also tells
us that they are held for no apparent reason. . ."pearls of war", perhaps. What
is your take on all that, and why couldn't Americans still be alive, particularly in North
Korean ? Also, has anyone from the USG ever talked to ALL of these escapees and asked them
about who they might have been held with ? What about the North Korean govenment officials
that have defected ? High ranking guys who should know something. . . anyone talk to them
yet ? (sic)
The South Korean "POWs"
Yes, I am aware that over the past few years a small number of former South Korean
soldiers, who were lost during the Korean War, returned to South Korea, claiming that they
had been captured during the war and not released for over forty years. I am not
convinced that their stories are what they are purported to be. Their appearance has
caused a stir among US MIA "activists" who argue that, if these guys were held
for nearly fifty years, why would not US personnel be held for the same time.
The question is valid but there is no reason to believe that US POWs were not released
at the end of the Korean War. US personnel interviewed these "returned
POWs" after they returned to South Korea. None of them had seen or heard of
Americans held after the war.
All of these South Koreans had several things in common: they were originally
from the northern part of Korea and they were put to work in coal mines or other
industries after the end of the war. As they became older and could not work in the
mines, they were retired and lived on small pensions. As economic conditions in
North Korea worsened over the past few years, their lives became miserable -- as did life
for most North Koreans -- so they "escaped" to South Korea. Their
"escapes" were interesting; basically, they were allowed to leave North Korea
and go back to South Korea. None of them reported that they "escaped from POW
camps." In fact, they each reported that they had been captured during the war,
later made to work in coal mines or other industries, moved to retirement apartments, then
"fled" to South Korea.
There is considerable question as to whether or not these people were actually
prisoners of war. They were -- at least this is what I have been told -- all born in
what became North Korea when the country was divided at the 38th parallel. There
were instances of northern-born soldiers in the South Korean army defecting to the
North Koreans during the war -- going home so to speak. Whether these men were any
of these "defectors," I do not know.
Another fact is important here: These men were Koreans, not Americans.
North Korea looked upon South Korean military personnel not as an opposing army, but as
traitors and criminals. Remember, "South" and North" Korea are
creations of the Cold War; the country was not so divided until after WW II.
"North" Korea considered the government of the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea (North Korea) to be the legitimate government of the country and the government of
the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to be an illegal government, and vice versa.
North Korea treated South Korean POWs differently from the way they treated Americans.
North Korean Defectors
The question is also asked as to whether or not US personnel have interviewed defectors
from North Korea.
US MIAs in North Korea: Not a new topic
First, let's understand that the question of US personnel missing from the Korean War
was not just recently discovered by the Department of Defense. Immediately after the
end of the Korean War, investigations were conducted into the fate of missing men and the
question of missing Americans from the Korean War has been a topic of investigation and
negotiation for the past 50 years -- it's not new.
389 "known POWs" never returned -- not exactly
For example, one of the myths about US MIAs in Korea is that at the end of the were
there were 389 US personnel who were known to have been captured but never returned.
Former Congressman Bob Dornan was known to rave about "389 Americans who were
seen eyeball-to-eyeball by other US prisoners." Not exactly. There were
389 men who were missing and who disappeared under circumstances where they could have
been taken prisoner. Most of them were in positions that were overrun but who were
never found when US forces took the position back from Korean or Chinese troops.
That's far removed from 389 men known to have been POWs. After the war,
investigations into these cases reduced the number of the men who were truly missing from
389 to some much smaller number; I do not recall the number but it was very small -- under
50 as I recall. The investigations found that eyewitnesses had seen these men die or
other information was developed
Graves registration in Korea
In the Vietnam War, US dead were placed in body bags, ponchos, and the like and taken
back to central mortuaries, either Da Nang or Tan Son Nhut. Not so in previous wars.
In the Korean War (and WW II, WW I, and preceding wars) men were buried in hasty
graves. Later, these hasty graves were exhumed and remains either returned to the US
or the men were buried in cemeteries outside the US.
If a man died in combat, depending on the situation, after the action was over,
- His body would have been taken back to a graves collection point, or, buried where he
- If he was buried where he fell, one of his dog tags was buried with him, the grave was
marked, and a report was sent to higher headquarters with the description and location of
the grave clearly recorded. Later, graves registration units would exhume bodies
from these hasty graves.
- If his body was taken to a graves collection point, the body would be processed --
identified, paperwork completed, etc.
- From the graves collection point, bodies would be moved to temporary cemeteries where
they would be buried in marked graves and the cemeteries mapped. Bodies buried in
hasty graves were later exhumed and moved to the temporary cemeteries.
- The temporary cemeteries later were exhumed and remains moved either back to the US or
to permanent cemeteries outside the US, managed by the US Battle monuments Commission.
Remember the opening and closing scenes of the movie "Saving Private
Ryan?" Those scenes were shot in a US military cemetery in France where tens of
thousands of Americans are buried still.
Now, consider these facts:
- Of the over 8,000 "missing" in Korea, many are men who were killed,
bodies recovered, buried in hasty graves or temporary cemeteries -- and their burial sites
are in what is now North Korea. We know that these men were dead, know where they
were buried -- it's just that we cannot recover them because we have not had access to
North Korea since the end of the war.
- There are over 800 Unknowns buried in the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii.
Thus, 10 percent of the 8,000 missing are actually buried on US soil, it's just that we do
not know who these men are.
Thus, when the figure "8,000 missing from the Korean War" is tossed around,
that is a wildly inaccurate number because it includes men know dead, known buried, who
cannot be recovered and it includes 10 percent of the total who are unknowns buried in
So, answer the question
To answer the question as to whether or not we have interviewed defectors from North
Korea: Yes, and we have been doing so since there were defectors from North
Korea. Not one of them has seen or heard of US POWs remaining in North Korea or
anywhere else for that matter.
The American actor story
There is one story that pops up from time to time. I expect that someone will
tell me that there was a North Korean defector who told of seeing a movie in which a US
POW played the role of an American soldier during the Korean War. Not exactly.
In the late 1980s, a North Korean defector came into South Korea. During his
interrogation, he told of seeing a propaganda movie about the Korean War in which the role
of an American soldier was played by a man who was identified to him as an American POW.
That is, he told us that he wondered at the American in the movie and someone told
him that the man was an American POW who acted in North Korean propaganda films.
In fact, the American whom he saw in the film is a former US soldier who defected to
North Korea in the 1970s. Yes, folks, it is true that, over the years, there have
been a small number of GIs who threw down their weapons and headed North. Most of
them eventually returned home, a couple of them died in North Korea or China, and some
remain living in North Korea. The individual whom the North Korea defector
identified in the movie is a well-known US defector who plays the role of Americans in
North Korean propaganda movies; one US researcher even turned up a North Korean
magazine article about him.
End of the Story
And that's the end of the story. Yes, the six or so "former POWs" from
North Korea have been interviewed as have defectors from North Korea. None of them
has provided any evidence of US POWs remaining in North Korea.
On July 23, 2000, the Washington Post published an article regarding several
North Koreans still being held in the South, as well as claims of South Koreans still held
in the North. Read this article -- the bottom line is that
the question of North - South Korean gamesmanship involving old men who may well NOT have
been prisoners of war has no place in accounting for missing Americans in Korea.